Les Misérables (2012) ★ ★ ★ ★
Possibly the most hyped-up film of the 2012 Oscar season, Les Misérables is a melodramatic, romantic interpretation of the much-loved musical. Tom Hooper plays up to his all-star cast, indulging in lingering close-up shots and dramatic pauses. Although the scenery and music is polished and realistic, Hooper has applied the dynamics of theatre to a film which to some extent bypasses those unfamiliar with the original story.
Set in 19th century Paris, Les Misérables follows the story of former prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who spends decades in a perpetual chase after breaking parole. He chooses to lead a pious life and promises factory-worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) that he will care for her child Cosette, who he finds living with two scam artists (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, bringing their distinct eccentricities to the table as comic relief). Years on, Valjean and grown Cosette are living secluded in Paris, where she falls in love with a young revolutionary (Eddie Redmayne).
Jackman as Jean Valjean assumes his big-screen role with macho delivery and sentimental vocals. He is almost unrecognisable in the early scenes as a prisoner and his many transformations over time are a testament to his acting talent. Russel Crowe, although is wincingly off-pitch and hints at an Australian accent, illuminates the harshness of Javert and the villainy of the French authorities.
Hooper leads us through the overcrowded cobblestone streets and dark, gloomy wharves and we are drawn into a completely different world on screen. Operatic and grandiose, it is not an easy watch. Hathaway’s iconic performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” is far from X-factor charm and glamour. The screen is forever filled with action- gunshots, wailing women, horses, and even an elephant. The utter destitution of the miserable French is trumped out by the glamour of the picture.
Among the recognisable faces, surprisingly, the younger actors shone in their sincerity and talent. Isabelle Allen as young Cosette portrayed the fragility and shame of a sad childhood, while Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche was confident and charismatic - quite the scene-stealer.
Playing the two young lovers, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius steal attention from the older cast members. Their expressive vocals (although Seyfried’s part is shrill at times) make the movie the epic that it is. Hooper captures the spirit of the young revolutionaries but more in terms of their comrade-fuelled venture than a tragic fight for a free and just life.
What may surprise audiences is the complete lack of dialogue – that is, outside of the musical theatre. The entirety of the film is in song - for musical lovers it’s a dream come true – but for the average filmgoer it can get a bit overwhelming.
Les Misérables reminds us of the power of cinema to recreate a history with the emotional intensity of a full-scale production on stage. When you have actors singing out of the studio and centuries of history to cover, it’s a mammoth task. The filmic production lacks a sense of space and cultural context but it’s a star-studded production.